Most analysts thought it would take a year or two of guerilla war for the rebels in Tigray to drive Ethiopian federal forces out of their state, but it has only taken eight months.
“The capital of Tigray, Mekelle, is under our control,” Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters on Monday.
The Ethiopian government, scrambling to disguise its defeat, immediately declared a “unilateral ceasefire” in the rebel state, but nobody was fooled. Tigray is gone, and this could even be the first act in the disintegration of the old Ethiopian empire.
Ethiopia is now officially a federal republic, but its borders are still those of the Christian-ruled multi-national empire that was built by Amhara conquerors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four of its 80-odd languages have more than 5 million speakers each, and one-third of the population is Muslim.
The chief task of any Ethiopian government has always been to hold this wild mixture of ethnic and religious groups together, and force has always played a big role in that task. Until 2018, when a relatively young politician called Abiy Ahmed was chosen as prime minister.
He was chosen above all because, although he was an Oromo, as a very young man in 1991 he fought in the overwhelmingly Tigrayan army that overthrow the Derg, the brutal Communist regime that had oppressed Ethiopia since 1977. So he was trusted by the Tigrayans.
This was crucial, because Abiy was really chosen as prime minister to pry the fingers of the Tigrayans from the levers of power without starting a civil war.
Tigrayans are only seven million of Ethiopia’s 115 million people, but because they did the heavy lifting in ousting the Derg they totally dominated the ‘federal’ government for the subsequent three decades. The Tigrayan elite had become both arrogant and corrupt, and their time was definitely up. Maybe Abiy could persuade them to go peacefully.
It was worth a try, but it’s not clear that Abiy ever believed that himself. His ‘peace’ deal with Eritrea after twenty years of hot and cold war won him the Nobel Prize, but it also enabled him to make an alliance with Eritrea against the state of Tigray if necessary.
The Tigrayans were predictably unhappy about being evicted from power in Ethiopia. The leaders of the TPLF gradually withdrew from Addis Ababa and concentrated in their own state, effectively ending cooperation with the federal government.
The trigger for the outbreak of actual fighting last November is disputed, but Abiy activated his secret alliance with Eritrea and the two jointly invaded Tigray. It looked like a walk-over, and by the end of November Abiy declared that the fighting was over.
But it was just beginning: Ethiopia held the towns, and the TPLF held the rest. The real war was being fought silently in the back country, and the smart money was on the Tigrayans.
Then suddenly last Monday the TPLF was back in the capital, Mekelle, and the war was over. Abiy’s troops are pulling out, the Eritreans are apparently going home, and Tigray is to all intents and purposes independent.
Ethiopia can survive losing Tigray, but the wholesale disintegration of Africa’s second-biggest country would be an almost limitless disaster. Abiy’s blunders are as much to blame as the obdurate and self-centred leadership of Tigray, but he is probably now the only man who can hold the rest of the country together. If he’s lucky.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.